NOTE: I didn’t write here last week. It turns out that getting certified to teach in public schools is difficult, and last week that took precedence. It’s good to be back though.
OTHER NOTE: Remember to click the links. They’re hard to see, but will add an auditory dimension to your experience here. Just click ’em.
Even before my younger brother took up the accordion I was a fan of any group that really rocked the squeezebox. Just during the 2009 Lotus World Music & Arts Festival in Bloomington, Indiana, I saw no less than four groups with accordion players. And maybe the most impressive was the bandoneón (a type of Argentine accordion) work of the South American electronica collective Bajofondo.
Lotus 2009 was my first exposure to Bajofondo. I knew well before the festival started that I couldn’t miss their Saturday night showcase concert, and was in no way disappointed. I was completely taken with the exciting sensual blend of electronic tango music and frenetic video projections, and within 24 hours had both bought Bajofondo’s 2007 album Mar Dulce and danced onstage with the group.
In an odd way, Bajofondo is something of a supergroup of tango musicians, DJs, electronica musicians, and Oscar-winning film composers from the Rio de la Plata region of Northern Argentina and Uruguay. Formed in the early 2000s as Bajofondo Tango Club, the group sought to blend traditional Argentine tangos and Uruguayan milongas with electronic music. Incorporating a full rhythm section, violin, bandoneón, and a member whose sole job is to project video compositions onto a screen during performances, Bajofondo has brought a smooth and seductive mix of popular South American music and global urban genres. In the world of Bajofondo’s music tangos are driven by breakbeats and swirling synthesizers while hip-hop tracks boast accents and flourishes of bandoneón. With their 2007 release of Mar Dulce the group even accommodated cameos from vocalists as disparate as Elvis Costello, Nelly Furtado, and Mala Rodriguez. Whether lightly teasing with piano lines or aggressively leaning on synthesized drums and bass guitar, Bajofondo’s music keeps the listener moving.
Bajofondo’s music is intentionally diverse in its inspiration and execution. Tango, milonga, electronica, hip-hop, trip-hop, and pop all appear variously across the group’s discography, and a track featuring rapped verses over a bandoneón loop can easily follow an atmospheric piece featuring echoing acoustic guitar and long-drawing orchestral strings. It’s often left up to the listener to guess what has been recorded by the collective’s members and what has been sequenced, as instrumental lines are warped and twisted around clips of mid-century tango concerts and soccer game play-by-plays. The result is a musical style that can be surprisingly deep even in moments of sparse arrangement; when a tune draws back to a twinkling piano line or an ominous whistle there is still an expressive air to the non-melodic sweeping and effect manipulation that pads the band’s sound.
This is very much a music well-suited to extremes. The most minimalist pieces rank among the bombastic and star-studded leading tracks in the collective’s catalog. Instrumentals such as “Centrojá“, “Pulmón”, and “Duro y Pareja” are essentially background music that demands the foreground. Indeed, a number of 2010 Acura commercials did just that, letting the lively beat and violin-led melody do all of the talking. When Bajofondo numbers do involve vocals, however, all bets are off. These numbers vary from the understated and sweet (“Pulso (1000 Mares)“, “Fairly Right“) to the aggressive and dark (“El Andén“, “Miles de Pasajeros“), but consistently draw the listener in to lean in and bob his or her head to the simple drum beats and staccato stabs of violin that fall in the cracks between verses, choruses, and sampled monologues.
I had the opportunity to see Bajofondo a second time just a few months after I first heard them. In Austin for the 2010 edition of South By Southwest, I caught a free set by the band at Auditorium Shores. While audience participation wasn’t quite what it had been in Indiana, the band was again mesmerizing. It does seem that Bajofondo is quite conscious of the importance of aesthetics, and the color schemes that seem to float around the band perfectly match their sleek and futuristic sound. As odd as it sounds, having video projections as an integral part of this live act makes perfect sense. Having said that, musicianship is also not lost on the collective, and not only does each member demonstrate complete mastery of his or her craft, but the element of dramatic performance that Martín Ferrés (bandoneón) and Javier Casalla (violin) bring to the show reminds the concertgoer that even a musical form as processed and computerized as this still has a very human element to it. As Ferrés stretched his bandoneón as far as his arms could reach and guitarist Gustavo Santoalalla growled at the crowd assembled, Bajofondo ignited a new love for Argentine music in the hearts of a few thousand SXSW attendees. This is electrotango.
In many ways, Bajofondo’s music is perfect for a car commercial. It’s sleek, seductive, sensual, and a bit aloof. It conjures up images of sweaty clubs both in modern-day metropoles and 19th-century Spanish-American backwaters. By striking a balance between the cold, harsh drive of drum machines and synthesizer pads and the expressive wails and whines of violin and bandoneón, the Argentine-Uruguayan collective has an identity that works as much as a musical statement as it does as a signifier of cool. The group hasn’t released a complete album together now in five years and their official website seems to have been taken over by spam (they can still be followed over on twitter at @Bajofondo), but Bajofondo remains an insanely talented collective of South American musicians blending very different styles of music. Much as Asian Dub Foundation has melded Indian music and identity with electronica, so has Bajofondo singlehandedly created the genre of electrotango. Nobody is listening to Bajofondo right now, but the group’s deeply South American take on electronic music and their immersive live show make them an act not to miss.